If you told me that a homely, lisping Brit could have a fifty year career in the movie industry, I would have to ask you to step outside. Once you stepped outside, I would probably ask you to paint my house. But, my apprehensions would possibly be for naught. Humphrey Bogart lisped and he wasn’t particularly good looking. But, lispier and uglier was the great Boris Karloff, a man who terrorized a generation…then, mildly unsettled the two generations that came after.
Karloff was born William Henry Pratt in 1887. If you think that it was easy, you try being born William Henry Pratt and see how you like it. Originally schooled to be a diplomat, Karloff quit school and eventually ran off to Canada to be an actor. His success as an actor encouraged him to become a railway baggage handler. But, he returned to acting for a year-long stint at Minot, North Dakota, which was as far into the United States as Karloff was allowed at the time.
Eventually, Boris Karloff made it to Hollywood and began doing what he was born to do: Portray non-white people in black and white films. Karloff played Asians, Arabs, Africans…any group of people that began with the letter ‘A’, actually. He was about to immerse himself in his greatest role, an Aleutian aardwolf, when he was slipped a note by director James Whale, asking him to test for the role of Frankenstein’s monster. The rest is history, provided nothing new happens after I write this.
The movie, Frankenstein, was a hit. It led to other horror roles in The Mummy, The Old Dark House and The Bride of Frankenstein. Karloff teamed up with Bela Lugosi in The Black Cat, which might’ve been the pinnacle of both men’s careers. At the very least, it didn’t get them beaten and shot. After this movie, Karloff went back to what he did best: Being a Chinaman.
He played General Wu Yen Fang in West of Shanghai and he played Chinese detective James Wong in five other movies. This was despite the fact that he looked no more like a Chinese than Ingrid Bergman looked like a wicker table. Work started drying up for the sixty year old actor, so he did something that no decent self-respecting actor should have to do…
In 1949 and again in 1953, Boris Karloff, in a last ditch effort to stave off starvation, took roles in Abbott and Costello movies. The only way it could’ve been more humiliating would have been if he’d performed naked and on a leash.
With the advent of the drive-in, horror movies had a comeback. Karloff made several horror flicks, a few beach movies and some projects that defy genre categorization. His crown jewel of that era was the narration and voice acting of the Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
After the Grinch, Karloff starred in a number of movies for release in Mexico. To say that these movies were unbearably awful does a discredit to awful unbears. He died in 1969…